Slovak criminal law reform may drag into January, government lawmaker says

(Reuters) – A Slovak parliament vote on criminal law amendments, which are raising concerns in the European Union’s executive, could shift into the new year as lawmakers are focused on budget bills, the head of the main ruling party faction said on Thursday.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, has fast-tracked proposals in parliament that include scrapping a special prosecutor’s office for high-profile graft cases, limiting protection of whistleblowers, including in running cases, and reducing sentences for financial crimes.

The plan to fast-track the changes has triggered protests and prompted the president to say European Union funds could become at risk because of rule of law concerns.

The European Commission has urged Fico’s government to go slow on any changes to allow analysis, and the EU justice commissioner said on Wednesday the Commission was ready to act if needed if changes violate EU law.

Fico, who has sought to have the legislation approved by Christmas, has not backed down on pushing ahead.

Jan Richter, his SMER party faction leader, said on Thursday that reforms could be dealt with in January rather than before, but there was no reason for further delay.

“Many ask, what about the criminal code? The (parliamentary) session in December will be adjourned and will continue sometime in January,” Richter was quoted as saying by news website Dennik N, which cited him as saying the 2024 budget and related bills were the focus first.

The reform planned to scrap the special prosecution office as of January 15, 2024, a date that may now be pushed back. President Zuzana Caputova’s expected veto would further hold back approval.

Opposition lawmakers have sought to obstruct passage of the criminal code changes and other bills pushed by Fico’s government, in power since October.

Fico, a four-time prime minister who resigned in 2018 amid mass protests against corruption after the murder of an investigative journalist, has accused the special prosecutor’s office of being politically motivated and has said it violated human rights.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Sharon Singleton)